For special ed and ELL students, choice is often lacking

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Aspiring to attend one of the city’s top-tier high schools can be a daunting proposition for students with special needs or English language learners (ELLs) and their parents.

Few of this fall’s incoming 9th graders who are special education or ELL students applied to the sought-after schools, and even fewer were admitted.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says her staff is taking a close look at the admissions criteria in the District’s 18 special admission programs and 13 citywide admission high schools and that the schools are being pressured to boost special education and ELL representation.

“I don’t know if it’s purposefully discriminatory, but you don’t see English language learners in some of our magnet schools,” Ackerman said in an interview with Notebook editors.

The issue is not new. In fact, the District agreed in 1995 to set targets for admission of special education students to the magnet and citywide schools in a court case known as LeGare, and subsequently applied similar targets to ELL students. For special admission schools such as Central, Masterman, and Girls High, the agreed-upon target is to enroll 7 percent special education and 7 percent ELL students. Schools that accept students from across the city, such as Bok, Constitution, and Saul, aim to admit 10 percent special education and 7 percent ELL.

But these schools are seldom successful in meeting these goals. Although recent data suggest a slight upward trend in the number of admissions among special admission schools for this fall, only four special admission schools and programs reported meeting the 7 percent ELL target as of July, and only five met the same goal for special education admissions.

Among 12 citywide admission schools reporting, eight schools met the 10 percent LeGare goal for special education students. Five met the 7 percent target for ELL students.

District data show that in 2007-08 more than 80 percent of special education students enrolled in neighborhood schools, compared with 66 percent of the regular student population. The citywide admission schools admit more IEP and ELL students than special admission schools, which require strong academic records.

Parent activist June Bey of West Philadelphia has a son Xavier, who is in special education; he picked three high schools, but failed to gain admission. Bey advises parents to start researching high schools when their child is just in the 6th grade.

“Attend the high school fairs in the fall. Talk with the school representatives to see how sensitive they are [and] what supports there are for your child. Don’t be afraid to apply to the schools you like,” Bey said.

Bey said she was frustrated by the appeals process that followed the rejections. If a student is turned down for admission, the parent can request a hearing under the LeGare Impartial Review Process, but has limited input.

“You don’t get to do advocacy [so] you can’t paint a better picture of what your child is capable of,” Bey said.

Bey ultimately enrolled Xavier at George Washington High School. The option turned out to be “a blessing in disguise,” where Xavier, 16, now an 11th grader, is having a good experience, Bey said.

“It’s a comprehensive high school … an excellent opportunity to see how he is going to fit in the larger society when he graduates,” she said.

The District offers tips for special education/ELL parents in English, Spanish, and Chinese, including advice to monitor attendance, grades, and behavior—all important criteria in the high school admissions process.

The District recommends doing research on the various high schools by attending the High School Expo, to be held during the last weekend in September at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, and speaking with counselors at the schools that seem a good fit.

The District also reminds parents to send a note to the teacher when their child is absent from school explaining the absence, so it can be coded as “excused.” Attendance records are important when applying to high schools.

Diane Smith, of South Philadelphia, said she had feared for her son Mark’s safety at South Philadelphia High School, but according to Smith, “we were never given the opportunity” to apply to the special admission or citywide high schools. Mark, 14, who has autism, applied for and won admission by lottery to Mastery Charter School-Thomas Campus.

Mastery analyzed Mark’s needs and recently approved his placement at Delta School, a state-approved private school with extensive autism support. “It’s a wonderful school,” Smith said happily.

For immigrant parents, “the question of high school choice has been coming up somewhat more frequently,” said Zac Steele, an organizer with JUNTOS in South Philadelphia.

At the same time, parents too often are unaware of the options. “The counselors give out forms, but communication with parents doesn’t really happen,” Steele said. “More often, families don’t know there is a form, or a choice.”

Last fall, the Notebook reported that ELL students are virtually absent from most of the city’s academically selective schools. Three-quarters of ELLs were found in just nine of the District’s 62 high schools, most of them on lists for being low achieving and persistently dangerous.

LeTretta Jones, District director of student placement, said counselors have a duty to promote admission of ELL and special education students to the special admission and citywide schools. “We think these students can be successful in these schools. If they speak a different language, maybe they don’t test well. [But we can] look at grades, functioning, and want to make an exception,” Jones said. “Actually, advocacy is required.”

Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, said immigrant parents typically are unaware of the special admission schools.

The process “is so incomprehensible to them. If you are a native Philadelphian, you are aware that there are some elite schools that students get into somehow,” Rieser said. “To immigrant parents, it’s a mystery.”